That’s Wild Rice with a Capital W, Boyo…

>There’s a lot of stuff out there that gets called wild rice, but a facts a fact, and here’s the fact about that, jack: For the real skinny on wild rice, I turned to my friend and supplier, Christy Hohman-Caine from the great northern wilds of Minnesota, eh? She explains thusly:

“Wild rice (Zizania palustris) is an annual grass that ripens about the end of August and into Sept. Processing requires drying the rice, then parching it, then removing the hull. It can be done strictly by hand, using a kettle (big ceramic pots pre-euro trade) and a paddle to parch and taking the hull off by “jigging” or “dancing” the rice in a pit. More industrial processors around here are not exactly high tech, but they may use propane to heat big metal barrels that have paddles (instead of people) to keep the rice tossing. Even then, the rice man checks each batch as it parches, because each strain is different and the amount of moisture may be different too. You gotta know what you’re doing.

Here’s a good article on the process showing the range from family processing to larger processors. Even the largest around here is not like the processing that commercial processors do (for paddy rice, like ol’ Uncle Ben’s). Check the slideshow with this after you read it. In spite of the names, these are all Indian people.”

By the way, she just tossed that off as a quick email response, gang – See why I love that girl?

So there ya have it! Chances are, if you’re looking to get the genuine article at your local Safersons, it ain’t happenin’. A little poking around online should net what you’re after though.

Suffice it to say that this stuff, real wild rice, is like nothing you’ve ever had before; it’s like good ale versus Super Lite beer; and it’s addictive, once you’ve had it, you’ll never wander yonder again.

We’re gonna do up a nice dish with this as an opener, and then segue into some follow up meals; why, ‘cause if you’re like us, you’ll make too much rice for the first meal and then have a container sitting around that can either get thrown out after a week, or be put to further good use as it should be!

So here goes: Today we cover the Big Kahuna knock out first meal, then on to the leftovers down the line.

Urb’s Chicken Breasts with wild rice, dried cranberries and crushed hazelnuts.

We took some nice natural chicken breasts, skinned and boned ‘em, butterflied ‘em out, and then pounded them a bit so they’re a nice, even thickness. Two points to consider here: One, this may look like fancy pants cookin’, but it ain’t; you could do this in the field if you wanted, (Seriously – Platt and I ate REAL well during our deer hunt – Being out and about does not mean you have to sacrifice good cooking, that’s what chuck boxes were made for…) Secondly, this recipe works even better with wild game; Quail, Pheasant, Partridge, or Dove would all rock with this – The wild rice, dried fruit and nuts with animal is simply the best, (Ever heard of Pemican?). OK, onward!

After the flesh is pounded out, (And yes, you should have a meat hammer if you don’t already), we put it in a nice little marinade of white wine, orange and grapefruit juice, with a little salt, pepper, onion powder, and celery seed. Let it sit for about ½ hour, then pull the breasts out and reserve the marinade.

NOTE: As with ALL poultry, always follow safe handling practices with the flesh and everything you use to contain and handle it!

We cooked the wild rice to the slightly dry side, then mixed equal portions of rice, dried cranberries, and chopped hazelnuts, (The hazelnuts were out of season, so we toasted them to get ’em back to a nice, perky condition). I put a spoon or so of bacon fat in the mix, (Everybody’s favorite cheat!), since chicken is lean and a little fat helps everything get together cozy-like; I also rehydrated a couple of our home grown smoked cherry peppers and chopped them into the mix for a nice, smoky taste with a touch of heat. Spread an even layer of the mixture over the meat, and then grab your kitchen twine. Roll the breasts into nice logs and tie them off.

The meat goes into an oiled pan on high heat and is evenly browned; once that’s done, pop ‘em into a baking dish, cover it with foil and toss that into a 350º F oven to finish. We use our schmancy thermometer to make sure we achieve 170º F internal temp, rather than using a timer. We took the remaining rice/cranberry/nut mix and tossed it on top of the breasts.

Once it’s done, pull it out and let it rest at least 10 minutes, as it will continue to cook and get to the magic done temp – Remember, NEVER cut flesh that’s just come out of the oven, you’ll guarantee dry and nasty if you do!

While the chicken is cooking, grab your marinade and use it to deglaze the pan you browned the breasts in. Mix all that up nicely and get the naughty bits off the pan bottom, and then set it on a low simmer to reduce; we took our down to roughly 25% and then added a couple tablespoons of butter, making it syrup-thick so it coats a spoon nicely when tested.

Our accompaniment for this wonderful stuff was nice, fresh green beans with lemon butter, and some Texas toast. Cut nice thick rounds of the rolled breast, (Remembering to take the twine off…), arrange and drizzle with the reduced sauce, and go wild! We had ours with a nice, dry white wine and a cooking show on the tube – fact is, ours looked a LOT better than theirs, and so will YOURS!



>A THOUSAND MEA CULPAS for being so remiss on entries!

Out of the last 25 days I’ve worked at the cafe, 60% have been closing shifts, and I’m afraid that has taken it’s tole on my energy level!

There IS light at the end of the tunnel though, and we’ll be back to regularly scheduled entries afore too long – DO NOT ADJUST YOUR LAPTOP! The problem is NOT with your computer!


E & M

NGKGChef now printer friendly!

Criminy, I swear, sometimes I am SO slow!

A new follower pointed out that each post in this here blog aughta be printer friendly, seeing as they ARE recipe based – (Gee Eben, ya think?)

Anyway, BIG THANKS, Ginnie, for the heads up, and it’s done – Each post now has a printer friendly/PDF button at the bottom, for your convenience and the great relief or trees everywhere!

Quiche a la Urban Monique

Welcome, friends, welcome to 2011! M and I have been blessed this holiday season with each other’s company for 2 whole days in a row, not only at Christmas but here at New Years as well. For me, that means amble reasons to cook for the love of my life; who could ask for anything more?

Breakfast is what we love best and that’s where I do some of my best work. So, for the first entry of 2011, I’m going to share a recipe-in-progress with you that I’ve been working on for the better part of a year. This is not the final form it will take, but it is incredibly good, fun to make, very impressive visually and unbelievably delicious. Ladies and gents, I give you the potato crusted quiche.

Quiche is a member of the custard family, of course, home of everything from crème brûlée to, the savory breakfast sub-species, which includes frittatas, tortas and quiche, among other goodies. Eggs are quite simply a perfect food, and quiche is the best possible savory application I can think of.

As with all things custard, there are a few little touches that will make the difference between good and great; they are:
1. Bring your eggs and cheese out with enough lead time to have them pretty close to room temperature before you mix and cook.
2. Scald your milk before you mix – In a sauce pan, medium high heat, until tiny bubbles form right around the very edges of the milk, then take it off the heat and let it cool a bit
3. Blend, blend, blend! When you combine your egg-milk mixture, the more it is blended, the smoother your custard will be – Use a boat motor if you’ve got one, or a stand mixer or blender of you don’t.

Urban’s Potato-Crusted Quiche

Pre-prep for the crust, the night before you’re gonna cook this up, grate about 2 cups of your favorite hash brown potato; Russets are most traditional, but any high-starch potato will do fine. Put your spuds in a glass storage container and throw that into your freezer overnight.

To make the crust, preheat your oven to 450º F. Take your spuds out and break up any clumps; put ‘em in a stainless bowl. Add a cup or so of grated cheese; Swiss or Mozzarella seem to work best, as they seal up the holes better than most others I’ve tried. Finally, whisk 2 eggs well and add them to the mix. Season as you see fit, with a minimum recommendation of salt, pepper and a shot or shake of Tabasco; (for this one, I used those spices plus onion powder, celery seed, garlic, and oregano.)

Mix everything well, and then sling it into a lightly oiled pie pan. You want a layer about ¼” thick, with no holes; raise your sides about ½” higher than the sides of the pan, to account for shrinkage during blind baking.

Bake the crust for 15 minutes; remove it from the oven, leaving the temp as it was. Check your crust and fill any holes, build the sides back up, etc, as needed to assure that it will hold the filling well.

Minor aside: Y’all will recall I’ve spoken of cook books that I use often? Well, those are the ones that get to hang right by cooking central – And here they are…

Filling: Scald 2 cups of milk, (Or, as you can see here, I used 1 ¾ cups of 2% milk augmented with ¼ cup of sour cream, to make it as rich and naughty as I think it aughta be – When I have it, I’ll do 3 parts milk to 1 part heavy cream for the same reason). Let your milk cool for a while, (And if you’re impatient, put it in a stainless bowl and roll it around the full perimeter every now and again, which will let the heat absorbing capability of the bowl to your advantage).

Whisk your eggs well; once the milk has cooled enough so that it won’t instantly cook your eggs, slowly and evenly pour the eggs into the milk, whisking constantly, until you have a nice blend. Motorboat/blend/mix the whole shebang for a good couple of minutes. Season your blend as you see fit; again, salt and pepper are a must – I added Tabasco, garlic, oregano and sage to this one.

Prep your filling goodies – Classic Quiche Lorraine is simply bacon, Swiss cheese and maybe some chive – I’m working on a southwest theme, so I’ve got Alderwood smoked bacon, aged Washington State University Creamery cheese, jalapeño, cilantro, onion, and dried tomato, (A note on tomato in quiche, etc – I LOVE tomato, but the fact is, even if you core and seed ‘em, they tend to add a lot of water to the mix, and raise a very real possibility of your final product ending up too watery, which is very unappealing – Dried is the answer – They’ll reconstitute beautifully, and add that perfect flavor note without making a swamp outta things.)

Mix all your goodies into your custard and shove it into the oven. Turn the temp down to 350º F as soon as you load ‘er in. Bake for 40 minutes and then take a look – With a good heavy oven mitt, give ‘er a shake – If the center ain’t jigglin’ like jelly, she’s done; pull it out and let it rest for 10 minutes at stove top. Serve with a spoonful of sour cream and a dash of salsa – You can thank me later…

Sharing the Bounty

My oh my! An unexpected windfall arrived down here today, from our wonderful friends up north at Neighborhood and Kings Gardens – Just look at this haul!

Handmade jams and preserves, apple butter, relish and sauerkraut, wild rice, dried tomatoes, even gourmet handmade charcoal!

(The wood you see is Snakewood, an amazing thing in and of itself and very dear to instrument makers!)

Now if this isn’t the heart of what CSA and good cooking is all about, we don’t know what is: HUGE THANKS to Christy, Lissa, Grant, John and Doug for your incredible generosity and friendship!

We wish y’all holidays of peace and warmth, and a new year filled with prosperity!

E & M

Birds of a Feather

Every Thanksgiving, someone says something to the effect of, “Why don’t we cook turkey more often?” Usually, I think it’s left at that, but for us, a few years back, we started to and we still do: Often enough, however, we find a turkey of any size just a bit too much for the two of us, so we’ve taken to downsizing with a nice chicken. I’m sure most of us have walked into the store and seen the ubiquitous pre-cooked chickens sitting there getting old, but since they’re on sale for $3.99, (Such a bargain!), we buy one, right? The problems with these things are myriad, but among the chief violations are these:
1. We have no idea where this bird came from or how good it is as raw product, and
2. We have no idea when it was cooked, and
3. The ‘seasoning’ is commonly barbaric

So, next time you’re tempted, pass the pre-cooked crap, head over to the poultry section, and check out whole roasting chickens.

We have a very nice, natural, no weird crap injected or fed, non-antibiotic filled brand available here and I’d bet you do too; that takes care of concern number one. You’ll notice, while reading the label to assure quality, that a very nice sized bird goes for roughly the same price as the pre-cooked junk, so there’s your bargain.

We’ll cook this ourselves, with fresh herbs and citrus, and that’ll take care of concerns two and three.

One other common concern we’ll address here is this: It goes something like, “OK, I get one good meal and maybe some sandwiches, but that gets boring after a few times…” This, of course, is the absolute wrong answer; stay with me and I’ll explain why.

First off, yes, you should start with a really nice meal. That bird is simply divine, as far as I’m concerned, and the joy of the whole shebang as we do it, a la that Thanksgiving feast, with turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry, Brussels sprouts, crème brûlée, is just too good to only do once a year. Light that menu up any month you like and you’ll have diners lining up at your door. That said, you needn’t go so whole hog to do a really great fresh chicken dinner; simple is best, so start there.

Unwrap, rinse and unpack your bird when you get it home, (how many embarrassing tales of cooked birds with the giblet packet tucked neatly inside must we hear, anyway?).

Follow all your standard safety precautions for handling poultry – Use separate tools, cutting boards, etc, and wash everything, including you, thoroughly afterwards.

Preheat your oven to 375º F.

Now raid the fridge; grab whatever citrus you have, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit all work great. Use maybe a large orange, or a couple of smaller lemons or limes, as you like and have on hand: Cut the fruit into 8ths or thereabouts and throw ‘em into a large mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, a few more of white wine, half a rough chopped onion, then rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix all that up, put your bird on a rack in a roasting pan and stuff the bird with it. Grab the ends of the bird’s little legs, (AKA drumsticks), and tie them together with kitchen twine, (You DO have kitchen twine, right?!)

Now take a couple tablespoons of butter, a couple more of olive oil, a little more rosemary and thyme and salt and pepper, and mix ‘em all together. Slather the skin of your bird liberally with the mix.

Anything left over from stuffing or slathering? Throw it all in the roasting pan along with 3 or 4 cups of water.

Throw that sucker into the preheated oven.

OK, now a few words about cooking poultry, (Actually, damn near any flesh, truth be told). If you’re a seasoned pro who cooks for a living, I will believe that you can look at and touch a hunk of protein and tell when it is not only done, but properly done to rare, medium, well, etc. If that sentence does not describe you, then you can’t tell just by looking or poking, OK? One of the greatest crimes against good food is improper cooking, so get a leg up, face facts, jump into the 21st Century and buy a decent cooking thermometer. Actually, get several, seriously… I have a candy thermometer and an instant read, both of which are dirt cheap, as well as a nice, probe-equipped digital beast that reads both internal food temp and oven temp; got the latter online for about $20 and it’s well worth it.

Going back to that pre-cooked store bird, let me ask another question; with all the potential; liability of selling cooked poultry, which side of done do you think they’re gonna lean to? If you answered “Grossly, obscenely overdone,” then in the words of Ed McMahon, you are correct sir! For properly cooked whole poultry, we’re looking for an internal temp of 165º F, measured in the thickest part of the bird; once again, take the guesswork out, get a good thermometer and start cooking chicken that makes folks’ mouths water, OK?

Pull your bird out when it hits 165 and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut it; second greatest crime with the preparation of good meat is carving into it right after it’s pulled out of the oven; what that does is virtually guarantee that all the juices are gonna pour out, and you end up with nasty, dry flesh, just like the store bought version – Be patient, let it rest, and you’ll get the juicy, tender stuff you’re after!

Serve this bird with whatever you like; you can’t go wrong with a nice, crisp salad and some spuds. You really must, however, make gravy, right?

Heat a sauté pan to medium high. Pour in an ounce or so of bourbon, and let the alcohol flash off. You do NOT need to light the stuff on fire, gang, just let is simmer and use your nose; when you smell the nice, smoky smell without the booze smell, you’re there. With a baster or ladle, take some of those lovely pan drippings out of your roaster, (And yes, we do want fat, gang, that is what makes gravy great), and pour it into the sauté pan. Let the liquids incorporate and get nice to a nice low simmer; adjust your heat accordingly. Add a couple tablespoons of flour, slowly and gradually, and whisk constantly as you do, to blend everything smoothly and avoid clumps of flour. Stop adding flour when your gravy is a bit thinner than you care for and allow the mixture to thicken by heat alone. Add a little salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste and bring it on!

The variations for this kind of thing are endless – How about southwestern style, with cilantro, onion, garlic, green chile and apple for stuffing and rubbing? Italian, go with shallot, basil, thyme, and balsamic vinegar – Get the picture? As with spice rubs and blends, pick some flavors that you like and that seem complimentary and experiment – The next great blend should come from YOUR kitchen, OK?

Now, place yourself in the not-too distant future. That wonderful meal has been eaten, the leftovers wrapped and boxed and stuffed in the fridge – What happens now?! Well, as we mentioned back a ways, there always is sandwiches; Warren Zevon, shortly before he died, gave this advice: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Indeed we should, Mr. Z… My dad was a sandwich artist, and I like to think I inherited some of his passion and talent – There are few things better than a chicken or turkey sandwich with fresh cut bird, fresh bread, crisp veggies and homemade pickles; do the sandwiches and thank me later.

But there is so much more waiting in the wings, Gang! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). First and foremost, you have the perfect source for stock, and stock means soup or stew, and, well.. Nuff said, right? Take that carcass out, remove the remaining meat by carving or, as I prefer, simply ripping big old chunks off. Throw the remains into a big ol’ pot. Add water to cover, a volume of mirepoix appropriate to the size of your bird, (Remember mirepoix? 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery, rough chopped), a couple bay leaves, salt, pepper, and put it all on a simmer. Let it do its thing for as long as you can, the better part of a day as a good measuring stick. When you can’t stand the incredible rich smell any more, strain out the remaining carcass and mirepoix, and return the stock to a large pot on medium low heat.

Raid the fridge again, and add what floats your boat; carrots, potatoes, peas, green beans, black beans, cilantro, garlic, corn, white beans, (or kidney, red, pinto, garbanzos – Get the picture?), rice, small pasta, (Boil first and strain well), chicken meat, a little bacon – Viola; homemade soup that puts everything else to shame. Maybe do up some French baguettes while it’s simmering, or fresh corn bread, (More on those later if that thought gave you a ‘Huh?’ moment…)

If you don’t feel like soup, fine – Let the stock cool, pour it into glass containers or plastic bags if you must and freeze it for later use – Nothing makes homemade soup, stew, or gravy better than homemade stock. Pour some of it into ice cube trays and freeze it; then when you’re ready to do up some great green beans you found at the market, pop out a cube, melt it in a sauté pan, add a little butter, and coat your steamed beans in that prior to serving – that’ll generate a wow moment for your diners, guaranteed!

Finally, how about what do afterwards if you DO do the whole Thanksgiving enchilada? How does one avoid the boring doldrums here? Easy, and one word for ya; terrine… The art of Garde Manger is the art of creatively using leftovers, and this is one of my favorites; I think I came up with this one, but I doubt it, frankly; it’s too easy and to good not to have been done before.

Preheat your oven to 350º F. Grab a loaf pan and lightly oil it. Now pull out all your Big Dinner leftovers; spuds, carrots, Brussels sprouts, dressing, cranberry, turkey, the whole shebang. Take your dressing and, by hand, line the loaf pan all around with a thin layer of that wonderful stuff. When you’ve done that, start layering the goods inside; turkey, spuds, carrots, everything except gravy, (Which will make things swim – Not good…) When you’re all layered up, cover the whole shebang with dressing. Pop it in the oven and let it do its thing for 30 minutes. Pull it out and let it rest for 15 minutes, minimum. Carefully cut a slice of the terrine and using a spatula, throw ‘er on a plate; add gravy and maybe some more cranberry; yum yum noises are optional but likely.

P.S. to loyal readers: Notice a diff on this entry? No standard recipe formats with exactly this much of this and that? Exactly; we’re starting down the road to cooking intuitively. Go with peace in your hearts, friends and neighbors! Look, if you’re not up to winging it 100%, OK, but you want to be and you will be and you have to get there somehow – Dive in, use your best judgment and trust that you’ll do fine; worst case scenario is a few learning experiences followed by a lifetime of joy and pleasure.

Keep Chile

Ivar Haglund, the legendary Washington State musician, unofficial waterfront mayor, and restaurateur, coined the phrase ‘Keep Clam.’ While this was certainly a play on Keep Calm, (Ivar liked puns a lot), it also makes a fine invocation for preservation.

As we’ve discussed a few times already, growing veggies and fruit and such is wonderful, but if you don’t preserve ‘em, the joys of your bounty are necessarily short lived. Teach folks to grow chiles and they’ll eat well for a week or two; teach ‘em to dry, can and freeze and they’ll eat well all winter long…

Monica grew me nine varieties of chiles this year, from pretty sweet to nuclear, with several stops in between. My favorite thing to do with them is dry them, because I can then make spice blends with ‘em, or reconstitute ‘em for moles and such, and they’ll keep for a long, long time.

Some I roast and freeze, ‘cause they’re that much easier and faster to pull out and use for enchilada sauce and stuff like that. I roast whole, skin on, etc and leave ’em that way; when I pull ’em out to thaw and use is the time to skin and seed as needed. Store ’em in glass or plastic as you have available; they’ll last all winter if you suck as much air out of the container as possible.

Like Tabasco? I love the stuff, but nothing from the factory matches what you can do yourself – Dried and ground Tabascos are incredible in everything from eggs and soup to macaroni and cheese or chili. To me, they’re the perfect blend of reasonable heat and sweet, complex chile overtones; perfection!

If you like the hot sauce version better, mash up your favorite chiles, add vinegar and water, (I like 50% – 50%) until everybody’s floating, simmer lightly for about 10 minutes, then throw everything into an airtight glass jar and let it sit in the fridge for a couple weeks. Pull it out, strain it, put it in a glass jar and bingo, you got your own hot sauce, with heat and flavor exactly as you want it – Chiles are kinda like wine grapes; they do great solo or in a blend, so experiment and make your own.

Love chili powder, but never found one that really floats yer boat? make your own then. I use a combination of Jalapeno, New Mexican, and Tabasco; that gives me the taste and heat I’m after to a T. For hot powder, I zap the chiles whole in my spice blender, seeds and all; for mild, I pop off the tops and remove the seeds and dried membranes – Yeah, it’s that easy and yeah, the former is that much hotter than the latter!

Classic chile powder has claims on it from Mexico to Texas to everywhere else in the southwest. The classic blend is not, as many seem to believe, simply ground chiles and nothing else – It is in fact a blend and the other stuff is every bit as important! Try this with your favorite variety(ies); alter the ratios as your palate sees fit – Have some fun!

Classic Chili Powder

3 Tablespoons ground chiles of your choice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon ground garlic

Put everybody into a spice grinder or molcajete and grind fine. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a glass bowl; don’t push stuff through – If it doesn’t fit, let it be. Place into a shaker top spice jar and enjoy; try this blend on soup, eggs, grilled cheese, roast chicken, gravy, etc, etc…

Names have been changed to protect the innocent…

>Or not, or not…


You’ll note that the title, (Not the web address), of the blog has been changed to Urban Monique’s Chef blog. If you’ll pardon the obvious pun on our names, (or not, or not…), this was done to recognize and support Community Based Agricultural projects wherever they may be, and to alert readers to the benefits of joining a CSA and growing food at home, even in teeny, tiny lots like ours!

Our emphasis will remain focused on the Neighborhood Garden and King’s Garden efforts and output throughout the seasons; we just want to encourage the ball rolling further!

E & M

Ladies and Gentlemen; dinner is now being served in the Library

Were you aware of the startling fact that annual cookbook sales in the U.S. is measured in billions of dollars? That’s billions with a B, gang…

As I type, kicked back in the ol’ recliner, there’s a pile of books on the side table; two on Mexican regional cooking by Diana Kennedy, Michael Ruhlman’s Ratios and Charcuterie, (With Brian Polcyn), Frederic Sonnenschmidt’s Art of Garde Manger, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. The Kennedy books are just acquired, having read of Frances Mayes’ appreciation for her work; the others are almost constant references that I use pretty much every time I write on this blog.

M and I own what we think are a lot of books; I’m looking over at four shelves, each three feet wide, two six feet high and two at four feet, pretty much full and there’re more in our bedroom, respective caves, guitar shop and night stands.. Of those, we have roughly four linear feet of cookbooks. A lot of the stuff we actually read, we buy used in paperback, read, share and then donate to the YWCA Resale Store. Cookbooks, on the other hand, are predominantly hard backs with shiny dust covers; some are even signed by the authors.

Here’s the rub; in our collection, we’re talking around 30 to 40 titles. If you’re a twenty first Century foodie, there a good few authors you’d recognize; Rick Bayless, Lynne Rosetto Kasper, Mark Miller, Grady Spears, Mike Simon, Maggie Glezer and Mario Batalli, to name a few. Despite all those bright lights, the books that get used consistently and frequently would be limited to Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and James Beard’s American Cookery. Those that I have actually read, cover to cover, would also tally exactly two; Harold McGee’s seminal volume and Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. That’s what, .5% or thereabouts?

How does that stack up to your experience? An informal survey found most folks said things like, “Got it as a gift, never cracked it,” “Use it very rarely,” and things along that line: Truth be told, that’s probably the way things are supposed to be; cookbooks are, after all, reference volumes and not much more than that.

I’ve been cooking my whole life, for pleasure and occasionally for a living: That said, it’s time to share another secret. Putting up recipes here for y’all was actually quite a bit of work for me, because I do not typically use recipes; I cook from the heart and off the cuff, always have, always will.

To cook professionally, you must be able to put out consistent, repeatable, high quality food, and you have to be able to do that quickly and efficiently. I am a pretty good at best, but more to the point, I am quite good at the quick and efficient part. To do what I do pretty much unconsciously as a recipe, measured out and tested, is work! I’ve always been a great skier; in my teens, I became a ski instructor. I was doing great until they said “Those are really nice turns, how do you do that?” I stared back blankly at them and said something pithy like “Ummmmm, I uh, just turn…” In teaching me to teach, they first had to alert me to the fact that I was a great skier, not a skier who knew how to teach others what to do in a logical and repeatable fashion. Cooking is much the same.

That said, over the winter months, I’m gonna try and relate to you some tricks and tips and methods whereby you can cook the same way; the desired end result being that you, as I do, maybe steal concepts and themes from all those cookbooks far more often than you do simply repeat a recipe. Iron Chef Mike Simon, one of my culinary heroes, says he uses Beard’s American Cookery for ideas when he is in need of a new dish; sounds like a darn good idea to me!

Starting with the recipes IS important. Like learning anything else, repetition breeds familiarity, practice makes perfect, and routine is great so long as it is accurate and thorough. Somewhere along the experience timeline, you look up and realize that you didn’t really think about the fact that pasta dough is a consistent ratio of three parts flour to two parts egg, you just pulled out what you needed, measured, mixed, rolled, cut, boiled, served and it was fantastic; that’s the magic we’re after.

So, in a rambling way, what I’m proposing is that, if you want to cook and cook well, a few well chosen reference guides are a good thing, maybe even a necessity. What follows is just my recommendation; if you have them, pull them out, give them a go over, and we’ll go from there. If you don’t own them, go to your local bookstore, or hit up a good used seller on Amazon and pick up a copy; you can thank me later…

1. James Beard’s American Cookery

2. Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking

3. Michael Ruhlman’s Ratios

That’s it. That’s more than enough, in fact. So, let’s get crackin’, ‘K?